By cutting back on political content, Facebook is taking the responsibility to further distort political competition in countries like Hungary, where media pluralism has been severely hit by the ruling parties. Such a move could help Prime Minister Viktor Orbán secure another term in power, argues Anna Donáth.
Anna Donáth is a member of the European Parliament for the Renew Europe group from Momentum (Hungary).
After the 2020 US elections, Facebook announced that it will experiment with dialling down political content in users’ news feeds and limit the amount of political content with which users interact.
After experiments conducted in the US, Canada, Brazil and Indonesia, sources suggest that Facebook is now considering rolling out changes in Sweden, Spain and Ireland as well.
The policy, Facebook claimed, comes from user requests expressed through surveys, while commentators questioned whether this could be a response to increasing pressure concerning the role of social media in spreading disinformation and exacerbating political divide.
And while combating these negative trends should be a top priority for regulators and a social media giant like Facebook, the consequences must be very carefully assessed.
In a country like Hungary, where independent media has been under attack for a decade, Facebook has become one of the last pillars of the public sphere onto which the government has not yet put its grip.
Indeed, after 11 years of reign by Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz, Hungary is now what many refer to as a hybrid regime in which checks and balances have been rendered ineffective and media pluralism has been severely undermined.
The progressive deterioration of the situation led for instance Freedom House to downgrade Hungary from “free” to “partly free” and Reporters Without Borders to rank the country number 92 in its World Press Freedom Index 2021.
In today’s Hungary, public media is under the government’s influence, while the regulatory agency, the Hungarian Media Council, has been captured by Fidesz. It now assists with the undermining of media pluralism in line with Fidesz interests.
Furthermore, private media outlets were gradually acquired by business circles close to the government. Some were closed down, while others had their editorial line submitted to the government’s political goals and are now concentrated in a monolithic entity subsidised with state advertisements.
As a result, both national and local media are increasingly dominated by pro-government outlets which are frequently used to smear political opponents and spread false accusations. Meanwhile, the functioning of the remaining independent media is hampered via legal and administrative harassment.
Social media as a last refuge for independent voices
With most of the country’s media serving the governmental narrative, Facebook has become a crucial pillar of public space where voices independent from the government can still express ideas, expose arguments, connect, discuss and safeguard public debate.
For opposition politicians, Facebook constitutes one of the most fundamental means to engage and interact with voters.
And while Fidesz’s reach is huge on Facebook too, here at least the opposition has a chance to be heard. Depriving the opposition from this chance and limiting this last space where plurality can still thrive would further distort political competition and directly contribute to helping Orbán secure another four years of power.
But Facebook is not only one of the main means for opposition politicians to reach out to voters, it is also a fundamentally crucial vector for independent media to reach readers and discuss issues of common interest.
As the pandemic broke out, Facebook was the main forum for journalists, experts and the wider public to discuss the reliability of governmental information on the actual situation in the country and the measures taken to address it.
And this brings us to the even larger issue at hand: what is meant by “political content”? How does Facebook intend to define it? More importantly, who is to decide what constitutes political content? After all, the definition can be overly broad and encompass any content of public interest.
This can easily include news articles on the pandemic, electoral debates, or consultations made by local authorities on road constructions in a neighbourhood. In my opinion, these are all instances of political content and should be considered so. But instead of limiting them, Facebook should help them spread as widely as possible.
Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater
Finally, I believe it is high time that the EU looks into the functioning of social media platforms and enacts legislation that will empower users, fight illegal behaviour, and address the spread of disinformation. The intensity of the ongoing discussions on the Digital Services Act and Digital Market Act is crucial to achieve this.
Nevertheless, what Facebook announced is nothing but corporate censorship: without consulting anyone, without social consensus, without presenting any evidence or data, it simply intends to arbitrarily decide what the 450 million citizens of the European Union can see on the platform.
Such decisions can impact the outcome of elections and, for a country like Hungary, the stakes are very high. Orbán is very well aware that social media is the last pillar of public debate onto which he has not yet managed to extend his grip.
This year, his government announced its intention to regulate content on social media but after negotiations with Facebook, no policy initiative has been put forward. With its plan to cut back on political content, Facebook is however set to take care of business for him.